Despite some magical strengthening provided by her chancellor, Lea had no stamina left by the time the southern gates of Tsab became visible. It was shortly before midnight on the third day out of Vorti, and even the guards had lost the snap in their step. The queen's blistered feet were painful to walk on, and her calves, which had once burned with agony, now felt as detached and lifeless as her benumbed hand. She stumbled frequently, but there was always someone to catch her before she fell. Virtually asleep on her feet, it was with amazement that she realized they had reached their destination.
     Guc recognized that an official welcome would wait until morning. Indeed, Lea was fast asleep and snoring before his servants bore her to her bed. Wil lingered long enough to see that the queen's guards were given adequate accommodations before retiring to chambers adjacent to Lea's own.
     Although the King of Tsab would have liked nothing better than to join them in slumber, he knew there were matters that had to be attended to first, not the least of which was a briefing with his friend and advisor Mak.
     The pair met in Guc's private sitting room, the smallest chamber in his spacious eight-room apartment. Even here, the king's preference for the exotic was on display. The carpet was a thick plush imported from Torg, the tapestries lining the walls were splashed with the colors of Merk, and the ornately carved chairs, divans, and tables were products of a small elf settlement in the Forest of Llam.
     After closing the curtains screening the sitting room from the rest of his chambers, Guc briefly embraced Mak before taking a seat. He pulled off his boots and propped his feet up on a table, letting his stockinged toes enjoy freedom from their confines.
     "You were later than expected, Your Majesty. We were becoming concerned."
     "Bad weather, damn it! This whole trip was cursed from the beginning. When did you get in?"
     "This morning. I spent last night in Xert after delivering your message to King Yax."
     "And what did that wrinkled old bastard have to say?"
     "Not much. He expressed regret at what happened, but indicated that any 'incidents' near Flaz' Quag were outside his official jurisdiction and Fels could not be held responsible for injuries or deaths."
     "How did he react to the quatic news?"
     "He didn't seem disturbed by it. In fact, he went out of his way to note that by going so close to the Quag, we were almost inviting an attack."
     Guc began cursing under his breath. Either Yax was deliberately closing his eyes and mind to a growing problem, or there was something sinister at work. Knowing the small-minded little king, Guc presumed the former. Yax was too petty to engage in dangerous politics, and few things could be more uncertain than an alliance with quatics. Not even Guc would dare something that insane.
     "How is the queen?" asked Mak.
     "Tired, and in bed. She bore up well, though. Better than I would have expected."
     "You sound almost proud."
     "Do I? Perhaps, but consider what she's been through. I'm not sure I'd be in half as good a shape if I had to slog halfway across the continent on my first trip away from home, and that's after getting her hand shredded during the quatic battle. Lea of Vorti is made of sterner stuff than either you or I thought."
     "This doesn't change your plans, does it?" asked Mak.
     "Certainly not! If anything, I'm more determined than ever to marry her. What a wife she'll make, not to mention the prize she brings with her!"
     "But if she is that headstrong, she may not want to cede control of Vorti."
     "She won't have any choice in the matter," said Guc. "And if she struggles against the inevitable, there are always alternatives. Vorti will be mine, with or without the consent of its queen, and in uniting the cities, Tsab will be raised to its former glory."
     "And Wil and Eya?"
     "Lea I have come to care for, but those two are dangerous. Doubly so, because they're Apaths. At some point, both will have to be eliminated. The only question is how to get rid of them efficiently enough to prevent them bringing their powers to bear."
     "Perhaps with another Apath?" Mak allowed himself a faint smile.
     "Another Apath?"
     "I'm thinking of one Caa, formerly of Merk, who arrived here while we were in Vorti. Apparently, he's filed for citizenship so he can marry a local noblewoman's daughter."
     "Which noblewoman?"
     "Baroness Ina."
     Now Guc shared his friend's smile, for not only was Ina a member of the Tsab nobility's inner circle, but she was an ardent supporter of the king. "Perhaps a deal can be reached. It may due to make inquiries about exactly how far Master Caa is willing to go for love. Tread carefully, though. The last thing we want to do is anger or alienate an Apath."

* * *

     The explosive bellow, an expression of shocked outrage and grief, could be heard for more than a mile in every direction, and quatics everywhere ceased their actions and gazed at each other worriedly, dreading what such an outcry could portend.
     On the small island of firm marshland that was his lair, Grundig lifted his face to the grayish heavens and screamed again, his wail causing the messenger who had brought him the ill tidings to cringe in terror. It was not unknown for the Prophet of the Quag to kill those who bore unpleasant news.
     Castabal, Grundig's favorite son and heir, was dead, killed in a meaningless skirmish with humans just south of the Quag. The reasons for the battle had been obvious - two of Devforth's rulers were in the entourage - but Castabal had been overconfident, bringing five quatics only instead of the full two-dozen under his immediate command. Now the Heir of the Quag was dead, along with four others. The only survivor was Fintac, who stood before Grundig awaiting his ruler's displeasure.
     Fintac had known his life was forfeit for delivering the news, but it was to inform Grundig of their failure that he had fled, rather than fight to the death. From the moment Castabal had fallen from the thrust of King Guc's sword to his throat, Fintac had known he would not survive to see another moonrise. Death then or now was only a matter of who he preferred as his executioner - the humans or his leader.
     Following his second cry, Grundig became silent. Head bowed, he paced back and forth across his tiny island, occasionally pausing to kick at a clot of mud or a clump of marsh grass. Fintac waited expectantly, trying not to be terrified, a task made impossible by the immensity of caged fury personified before him.
     Finally, Grundig came to a halt, raised his head, and fixed baleful twin yellow eyes on Fintac. His words were clipped, betraying the tide of emotion roiling beneath the icy exterior. "You will tell me everything about the battle, including who was responsible for my heir's death."
     Fintac moistened his lips with his tongue and began, "There were about sixty of them, but Castabal thought that six of us..."
     Not with words, Grundig's voice exploded in Fintac's head, its force driving him to his knees. With your mind, worm!
     Quick as a cat, the Prophet advanced on him and, seizing Fintac's head in a vise-like grip, smashed his way into the weaker quatic's mind. Memories were seized and appropriated, with no care for the wreckage and chaos created. The order that had been Fintac's reason collapsed like a house made from sticks and mud. When Grundig withdrew, the other was a gibbering idiot, easily disposed of by the simple act of snapping his neck.
     Two names were foremost in Grundig's mind, with faces to match, and now the planned war against humanity and elfkind had taken on a more personal aspect. Previously, this had been a quest for quatic greatness, but now the main course was salted with revenge. Queen Lea of Vorti and King Guc of Tsab would feel the agony of Grundig's wrath. It was not enough that they die; he must kill them. He would hold their living hearts in his hand and taste their warm blood. All others his people could claim, but those two were his.
     It was much later, near the approach of another murky twilight, when Grundig noticed he was no longer alone. A kneeling quatic waited patiently on a hummock near his island.
     "What do you want?" Grundig demanded. "Speak carefully lest you share the fate of the last one to disturb my solitude." A gesture at Fintac's corpse, now serving as fodder for crows and vultures, emphasized the point.
     The newcomer swallowed hard, but did not turn away. "Pardon my interruption, Lord Prophet, but an emissary has arrived from the Vorti Marsh. He is the first son of High Chieftain Muril, and wishes to greet you on behalf of his father. He claims to bear a message of import."
     Mollified by the news, Grundig granted the messenger immunity for the disruption. Moments later, Yablik of the Vorti Marsh presented himself to Grundig, bowing deeply. When he looked up, there was respect in his eyes, but no fear. For the first time, the Prophet of the Quag found himself face-to-face with a member of one of the distant nations.
     Yablik's appearance was little different from that of any member of Grundig's tribe. Other than a violet skin hue and more coarse rust-colored body hair, there was nothing obvious to differentiate the Vorti Marsh quatic from any of the Quag dwellers. Yablik was big and brutish, with powerful arms and legs, and a chest that bulged impressively. In terms of sheer physical ability, he was more imposing than Grundig, and at least a handspan taller. But magic and cunning were the elder quatic's edge, and both recognized this.
     "I bear greetings from my father High Chieftain Muril to the Honored Prophet. Muril has heard the words of your ambassador Foco and has agreed to subjugate his people under your banner. We know we are the first from the East to do this, and hope this show of early support will earn us recognition as first among those tribes."
     "I favor the strong," rumbled Grundig. "Whether they come to me early or late. Time is not an issue in this campaign. The quatics have waited four centuries for this opportunity; what can a few additional years matter? If Muril wishes to be first among many, he must prove his mettle in battle. The only way to earn my recognition is to wade hip-deep in the blood of my enemies and bring back more heads than any other chieftain. Let him know if he does that, he shall receive my favor in all things, and I can be as generous as I can be harsh."
     "I shall relay your words to my father, who musters his tribe even as he awaits your response. Shall he lead his people across the great dry bridge and come to Flaz' Quag?"
     "No. The Quag can barely support the numbers within it now, and the humans must not be given reason to suspect anything. Tell Muril my subject to gird his people for battle and await my commands. When all is in readiness, the call will come, and I expect every tribe to move swiftly and powerfully. Failure will not be tolerated. Be sure he understands that, for this is not some game for aging glory-mongers."
     "I shall make clear the meaning of your words, Lord Prophet."
     "And to whom do you owe your allegiance, Yablik son of Muril?"
     "To you, Lord Prophet."
     "And should my aims diverge with those of Muril?"
     "To you, Lord Prophet," repeated Yablik without hesitation.
     "Very well," grunted Grundig. "Now leave me."
     Grundig didn't see his newest subject's departure, for his thoughts had already returned to other, darker matters. At the moment, the beginnings of an army concerned him only as it represented a tool for vengeance. In his silent grief for his lost son, the Prophet of the Quag sought solace in images of the havoc and terror he would wreak on the race that had stolen the life of Castabal, first among the honored dead.
* * *

     Lea awoke on her first morning in Tsab to a dignified-looking, elderly gentleman unwrapping the bandage covering her injured hand. Her eyes fluttered open at his touch, but not because it brought pain.
     "Rest easy, child," he advised, his voice soothing. "I'm sorry to awaken you, but His Majesty King Guc felt your wound was serious enough that it should not be further ignored."
     Her senses muddled by sleep, Lea managed a nod as she raised herself to a sitting position. From across the room, sprawled in a comfortable armchair, Wil flashed her a reassuring smile.
     Stretching her memory to the night before, the queen of Vorti couldn't remember how she had gotten into this room, much less the bed. The last thing she recalled was approaching the palace. After that, she supposed she had either fallen asleep or passed out. The sense of overpowering weariness was clear.
     The bedchamber was fit for a queen - which, of course, she was. Everything was white, from the glittering ivory-inlaid walls to the dyed bearskin rugs. The many tall windows were thrown open to let in the dazzling sunshine of this spring morning, and the silk curtains framing them rippled to the prompting of a soft breeze. Lea's bed was canopied in lace and silk, and her bed materials were as soft as any she had ever slept in. She knew she probably cut a striking figure, with her sun-darkened skin and black-and-gold hair contrasting with so much paleness.
     The healer, a man who looked like he belonged in a room like this - he had a long white beard, curly hair of the same color, and a spotless robe to match - flashed her a grandfatherly smile as he bent to his work, probing the injury with skilled hands. Lea felt nothing. It was as if he wasn't touching her.
     "Your Majesty," said Wil, rising to come to her side. From his disheveled condition, it was apparent he had occupied that chair for some hours. Lea wondered what time it was. "This is Master Uro, one of Devforth's most knowledgeable and accomplished non-magical healers. What can be done for your hand, he will do."
     The examination lasted nearly a half-hour, and during that time, Uro not only poked and prodded at the wound, but also exposed it to doses of ointments and liquids. Nothing had a noticeable effect on Lea, who sat nibbling on the nails of her right hand.
     Finally, Uro straightened to face the queen and her chancellor. "I'll be straight with you both, since I sense you are the sort who prefer bluntness."
     Lea wasn't sure about that, but she let him continue.
     "There are a number of injuries, including torn ligaments and broken bones, but these are inconsequential in comparison with a single serious problem. The saliva in the wound acts like a corrosive poison - unusual, slow-acting, and very destructive. Its first effect is to destroy sensation, and that has already been accomplished. It is now working on dissolving flesh, bone, and blood, and the effects are spreading. Within a few days, your entire arm will be infected. If my guess is correct, the process will accelerate the closer it gets to the heart. Left untreated, you will die in a week's time."
     Lea stared in open-mouthed amazement at her hand, hardly able to believe what she had heard. Die? Because of this? In one week? It didn't look pretty, but it didn't have the appearance of something fatal, either. And there was hardly any blood. She commented on that.
     "It isn't a good sign," replied Uro. "Normal wounds bleed, and ones of that severity do so profusely. An injury that doesn't bleed putrefies, and doubly so with that saliva in it. In the wrist, you're probably losing sensation you had last night."
     Lea couldn't comment on that. Her wrist was numb, but she couldn't remember how it had felt yesterday. Weariness blurred everything.
     "There are others who suffered similar wounds," she began. "Members of my personal guard. Is the diagnosis the same for them?"
     "Undoubtedly," said Uro, "But I will send someone to examine them as soon as I finish here. The treatment must be the same as well, I'm afraid."
     "Which is?" demanded Wil.
     "As a sometime practitioner of the healing arts, I'm sure you can guess."
     Wil nodded, and Lea felt a surge of panic. She cradled the arm protectively against her breast, bloodying the white bed linens.
     "It's necessary, Your Majesty. Your arm or your life. And I can make certain you feel no pain."
     "I don't feel any now," muttered Lea.
     "The amputation must be made where full feeling exists, otherwise there is no certainty the taint will be gone," said Uro. "And the sooner this is accomplished, the better. Every moment we delay, the poison spreads, and that much more of the limb must be sacrificed." So saying, he withdrew a razor-sharp cleaver from his healer's satchel. A chance ray of light reflected off the blade, making it gleam.
     "Your Majesty, he's right," said Wil when the queen refused to yield her arm to the healer. "What good is it to you in its present condition?"
     Lea turned accusing eyes on her chancellor. "Isn't there anything you can do?"
     "I'm not skilled enough to work with poisons. Remember the child I accidentally killed two years ago trying to do something similar? I might easily accelerate the progress. I dare not make the attempt."
     "And if I commanded you?"
     "A man may not do what he is incapable of, even if ordered by his queen. Your Majesty, you might as easily command me to touch the stars. You must submit to Healer Uro. I promise you won't feel a thing."
     Uro stood by the bedside, cleaver in hand, waiting. Lea's heart quailed as she contemplated what must be done, but every inch of her was a queen, and she recognized necessity when confronted by it. Arm trembling a little, she extended it toward the healer. He took it in a firm grasp at the wrist. She couldn't feel his touch.
     Then Wil laid a hand on her temple and darkness came rushing in, blotting out the agony of the next moment.
* * *

     Several hours later, around mid-morning, Wil sought an audience with the sleeping king. Guc's chamberlain tried to deflect the request, but when Vorti's chancellor threatened to force his way into the royal bedchamber, he was shown into the sitting room. Moments later, Guc joined him, dressed in a robe, with uncombed hair and a bleak expression.
     "I assume you have a reasonable explanation for disrupting my sleep and threatening my servants, Chancellor? Honored guests are allowed many privileges, but terrorist threats are not among them. Apath or not, you should remember you are in my power now. This is not Vorti."
     Since the belligerent tone was likely a result of Guc's sudden awakening, Wil let the comments pass. "I thought you should be advised that Queen Lea is resting comfortably following early-morning surgery."
     Suddenly, Guc became attentive, all remaining signs of sleep evaporating. "Surgery? Why?"
     "Your palace healer identified Her Majesty's condition to be the result of the quatic's poisonous saliva. Her left hand had to be amputated a handspan beyond the wrist. She is resting peacefully in a magic-induced sleep. She should be awake by dinner time.
     "As for the others who suffered similar wounds, two are dead, but the others have been treated with varying degrees of success. Several have lost limbs or portions of limbs, and one had a chunk of his chest cut out. Whether or not he will survive is still in doubt."
     "Excuse my brusqueness, Chancellor. I was not aware. Can I see Her Majesty?"
     "It would be best if you waited until she is awake. There's nothing anyone can do until then."
     "I see," muttered Guc, displeased.
     "I believe there is another matter we should discuss," ventured Wil. Now was perhaps not the best time to broach the subject, but only a fool did not seize an opportunity when presented with it.
     "I think I know what you're going to say, and I've been expecting it. You want to know what my 'intentions' are toward your queen."
     Wil raised an eyebrow. "It's a little more complicated than that, but you're essentially correct."
     "Perhaps it would be for the best if we made our positions clear. You don't have a problem with that, do you?"
     "No," replied Wil.
     "I don't like you, Chancellor, and I doubt you'd be holding your current position if it weren't for your powers. I think your views are outdated and counterproductive, and I don't see your presence at court as being an advantage to either Vorti or any of the cities seeking to deal with her. Perhaps there was a time when you were an asset, but that time is long past. Unfortunately, by continuing in your position, you're doing Lea a disservice, and by attempting to persuade her that I am 'unsuitable' for her, you're letting old prejudices overrule simple common sense."
     Wil had to fight down a surge of annoyance before responding. The dislike in the other's voice didn't bother him - he and Guc had never pretended to be more than civil to each other - but the contempt was galling. "It's true I'm not enthused about a potential match between you and Lea; not because I don't see the obvious political advantages, but because I don't trust you. Vorti and Tsab have been enemies for a very long time now - since before both you and I were born, in fact. From what I know of your rise to power and some of the speeches you made after dethroning your father, conciliation is the last thing on your mind. As I see it, your intention is to use an alliance with Queen Lea, whether political or matrimonial, to advance Tsab, regardless of the price to her or her city. My intention - and my duty - is to stop you, and I have several powerful allies who share my views.
     "If your real reason for inviting the queen here is to work out trade agreements, then we won't clash. If your motivations are of another nature, however, I don't intend to back down. I have served Vorti faithfully for fifteen years, holding a position I never wanted in the first place. It would please me to give my life for my city - especially if that meant taking down a dangerous threat to her security.
     "Is that 'clear' enough for you, Your Majesty?"
     Guc was livid. "You dare threaten me in my own chambers??"
     "I do not threaten; I present facts. You may not like my being an Apath, but the existence of my powers is something you can neither deny nor ignore. As Chancellor of Vorti, I am sworn to act in the best interests of the city, and I will bring those powers to bear against any threat, even one that might require the shedding of royal blood."
     "Get out now, or I'll have you thrown out!"
     It had come down to a power struggle, as Wil had suspected it must. If he backed down now, he would never again be able to intimidate the king of Tsab, but if he stood his ground, he risked provoking an incident. Nevertheless, his duty was clear, and he was glad the conflict had come between him and Guc, rather than between Lea and the Tsabian ruler.
     "I'm not sure you want to make promises you can't keep," said Wil, his voice even.
     Rising to his feet, Guc glared at his visitor, but the stare returned by Vorti's chancellor was no less frosty or determined.
     "I'll have you driven from this city! I'll see that Lea has you dismissed from court and hunted down as an outlaw!"
     "I believe your temper has gotten the better of you, Your Majesty. You overestimate your power and influence."
     Although Wil did nothing apparent, suddenly Guc found himself immobilized, unable to move a muscle, blink an eye, or even breathe. Panic swelled within him, but there was no outlet. For the first time, it occurred to him how easy it was for the Apath Chancellor to kill him.
     "I don't need your love, or your friendship, Your Majesty," said Wil calmly. "But I demand your respect, not only for myself but for my Queen. If you treat falsely with her in any way, I will destroy you then as surely as I could now. Remember that as you set your plans in action. And, if by some quirk of chance, I should die, there is another more ruthless than me waiting in Vorti."
     So saying, Wil released Guc, who fell gasping to the carpeted floor. Without a glance at the king, the Chancellor rose and exited.
* * *

     When Lea awoke late in the afternoon, she felt more refreshed than at any time in weeks. For a moment, she was disoriented, unable to fathom how she had gotten into this spacious, canopied white bed. Then, in a flash, it came back to her: the healer Uro, with his kind features, hefting a cleaver as her chancellor mercifully submerged her in a magical slumber.
     For something that was supposed to have been hacked off, Lea's left hand felt remarkably whole and healthy beneath the covers. Wondering if she was imagining things, she pulled back the sheets to reveal an unmarred, uninjured arm, complete with a hand and five fingers. Not only was there no hint of damage from the cleaver, but the pulpy ruins of the quatic attack had been perfectly repaired. Clearly, Wil had discovered some method of healing her after all - unless there was another Apath in Tsab who had been called to her bedside.
     Tentatively, Lea flexed the fingers, but there was no stiffness or awkwardness. The only oddity about the hand was that the skin was a shade paler than that of the rest of her tanned body.
     Rising from bed, Lea searched for her clothes - or, indeed, anything more suitable than the frilly, nearly transparent shift she was wearing. There was nothing, however - not even a robe. Locating a gold-tasseled pull-bell, she rang for assistance.
     The maid who answered the summons was a pretty girl several years Lea's junior. Keeping her eyes downturned, she said, "At your service, Your Majesty." The accent was that of one born and bred in the streets of Tsab.
     "Could you perhaps locate my clothes for me? I'm ready to present myself to your king, but this outfit is unsuitable."
     "Yes, Your Majesty," said the girl, curtseying her way out of the room.
     Alone again, Lea moved to one of the room's many windows and gazed out. The view was western-facing, looking toward the ocean that churned beyond Tsab's harbor. By all indications, it had been a lovely day. The darkening sky was free of clouds and the men and women strolling through the streets below were dressed in lightweight clothes appropriate for warm weather. Lea attempted to open the window, but the locking mechanism confounded her.
     "Your Majesty," came a familiar voice from behind her. Lea turned to face her chancellor, who had paused to bow just inside the doorway. In his arms were an assortment of gaily colored gowns, from which she was apparently intended to take her pick.
     "Chancellor, I want to thank you for what you did. Although I was willing to sacrifice my hand, it's better that I..." She stopped in mid-sentence when she noticed the expression of amazement on Wil's normally even features.
     Instinctively, Lea's gaze followed her chancellor's, but there was nothing wrong with her hand. "What is it?" she demanded.
     Wordlessly, Wil approached her, carelessly dropping the dresses on the floor. Grabbing her left wrist in a firm grip, he probed magically and physically at the appendage that shouldn't have been there.
     "Is something wrong?" Lea was becoming concerned. An uncontrolled reaction of this sort was not what she had come to expect from her unflappable advisor, even in the most dire of circumstances.
     "I don't know how this happened..." He began, lifting his eyes to meet hers. "But you have a hand - a new, fully functional hand where one was cut off this morning."
     "Are you trying to tell me you didn't heal the injury?"
     "There was nothing any of us could do. I was here when Uro cut the hand off. In fact, I healed the wrist stump with magic to keep you from losing too much blood. I don't understand where that came from."
     For a moment, Lea had no response, and Wil was equally at a loss for words. For those used to dealing with magic, something unexplained and potentially unexplainable was more than disturbing - it was frightening.
     "Is" managed Lea at last, looking at her left hand as if it had become a viper.
     Wil nodded. "Whatever happened, this isn't some aberration. That hand is yours, perfectly knitted with the rest of your body. There's no evidence of scarring or mismatched tissue. Had I used magic to graft a new hand to your arm, even understanding the myriad complexities of such an attachment, I couldn't have done a job one-hundredth as good as this one. Whatever happened to you, I doubt it was accomplished by magic."
     "If not magic, then what?"
     "I don't know, Your Majesty, but the fact is you have a perfectly functioning hand where a damaged one was sliced off this morning. Perhaps your heritage is more important than anyone had previously believed."
     "My heritage? You think I've somehow inherited my father's abilities to heal?"
     "Not your father's; your mother's. She was a changeling, capable of altering her form - if not her mass - at will. This new arm has the 'feel' of that sort of activity. Had we measured your weight this morning, we would likely find it unchanged now, despite the presence of a new hand."
     "No one has ever been forthright with me about my mother, Chancellor. Both you and Eya have deflected all my questions about her. It's time you told me everything."
     "You are correct, Your Majesty. Your mother's story is not a happy one, and I wasn't present to witness it firsthand, but I have talked with many who were there, including Eya. It could hardly have been kept from you for much longer, anyway, now that you are a woman and the queen. After dinner, perhaps..."
     "No. Inform His Majesty that I am not well enough to join him at table tonight, then return immediately. We have a great deal to discuss if we're to understand what happened, and whether its cause was magic or something else. King Guc will have to be patient."
     Wil nodded. In this matter, Lea was showing wisdom beyond her years, not merely girlish curiosity. There was a mystery here, and one that demanded to be solved. In his experience, events like this one, left unexplored, led inevitably to bigger and more traumatic surprises.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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